On 25 January, 2010, 5 minutes after taking off from Beirut, Ethiopian Airlines flight 409 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. On board were 82 passengers and 8 crew members en route to the capitol city of Ethiopia Addis Ababa; no survivors were found. Shortly afterwards, Lebanese Civil Aviations opened an investigation in to the crash. While the investigation was taking place, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said, “sabotage is ruled out as of now.” Other Lebanese officials blamed bad weather and the pilot. In Beirut, witnesses claimed seeing the plane on fire while still in the air. It wasn’t until two years later that the final report from the Lebanese investigation came out concluding that the cause of the crash was pilot error and suggesting that Ethiopian airlines change its pairing policy to not allow two inexperienced pilots to fly together. The Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority rejected the report’s conclusion, saying the probable cause of the crash was either a shoot down, sabotage, or a lightening strike.
Today, WikiLeaks releases email threads from the global intelligence firm Stratfor dating back to the time of the Ethiopian Airlines crash. While investigations were taking place in Beirut and Paris, Stratfor was prying for answers from different high level sources. The sources included a hospital director in Beirut, a Lebanese military source, and a Hezbollah media source.
On 1 February, 2010, Stratfor analyst Reva Bhalla sent an “Insight” to Stratfor analysts regarding the plane crash, which included accounts from several sources of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the flight. Bhalla says that a Lebanese military source (with level B reliability) claimed there were 20 Hezbollah operatives on the plane transporting explosives to deliver to Hezbollah sleeper cells in Uganda and Kenya. Another source, called a “Hezbollah media source,” (who Bhalla later comments is “of course highly prone to disinfo and his information should be regarded
as suspect”) said that Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri had asked the US to assist in the recovery of the plane’s flight data recorder. Bhalla comments that “The assumption about foul play or inadvertent explosion is widespread in Lebanon.” Her third source was Director of Rafik al Hariri hospital in Beirut (with level A reliability) who said that “Hasan Taj al-Dine, prominent Lebanese Shiite diamond merchant was aboard the doomed Ethiopian plane” and “concurs that some of the operatives were supposed to continue to Kenya and Uganda, where HZ has a few sleeping cells.” Another email from Bhalla later in the day notes “it’s interesting to me though that we are getting this from 3 very different sources in 3 diff reports.”
A follow up email from Bhalla later that evening reported that the Hezbollah media source claimed that Hezbollah Parliamentary deputy Nawar al-Sahili was scheduled to be on the flight but canceled “for security reasons.” The military source said that “the Iranians wanted to to escalate by planting more HZ operatives abroad because they were already anticipating president Obama’s escalatory tone.” But other Stratfor analysts disagreed with the likelihood the sources’ stories. Bhalla responded to the criticisms and added, “I trust my source but, after all, he could be off.”
A week later on 8 February, Bhalla sent another Stratfor “Insight” to the Stratfor Analyst List from her Hezbollah media source. The source was “quite certain that the Ethiopian jet was sabotaged” and said “Sayyid Hashim Safieddine (HZ chief Hasan Nasrallah’s maternal cousin and the real number two man in HZ) was supposed to board the plane along with an HZ delegation.” Later that day, Fred Burton wrote that none of his US counter terrorism contacts believed the crash was due to sabotage, even though the American National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team was part of the investigation.
On February 10, yet another Stratfor Insight and a short followup was distributed to the analyst list detailing a Lebanese military intelligence source comments on the analysis of the flight data recorder. He claimed the flight data recorder did not show pilot error and that the “Lebanese intelligence community believes the plane was sabotaged by Mossad. In his opinion, it was the first shot in the forthcoming war between Israel and Hizbullah.” The source also said that the Lebanese did not want to admit the plane had a bomb:
The Lebanese are facing a dilemma. They cannot admit that the plane was planted with a bomb in Beirut airport for it would reveal the extent of security laxity. When I talked to the source about the matter he reminded me of the case of the crash of Egypt air in North America in 1999. The Egyptian authorities did not allow the US to publicly reveal the outcome of investigation which pointed to a deliberate suicidal crash by the pilot al-Battuti. The plane exploded in mid air. A pilot error would have caused the plane to lose balance and crash at sea.
Later on 1 March, a Stratfor Insight describing the views of a Hizbullah media source shows that Stratfor continued to track the possibility of sabotage. The Hizbullah source was convinced that Mossad was responsible for the crash and said that Hasan Nasrallah wanted to publicly announce what he knew about the event but was convinced otherwise.
A 17 February, 2010 cable from Beirut (also leaked by WikiLeaks) on the crash does not hint at the sabotage theory that was circulating in Lebanon and at Stratfor. Instead, Ambassador Michel Sison describes the Lebanese government’s “weak crisis management planning” and criticizes its public relations handling. Lebanese authorities had spoken publicly about the crash and the investigation, which had revealed different views and exacerbated rumors. Sison also praised US assistance with the Lebansese investigation, citing NTSB invesitgator Denis Jones as saying “the FAA and Boeing team members had done the heavy lifting on the investigation and were essentially writing the report on its findings for the Lebanese.” The Cablegate archive of State Department cables from WikiLeaks ends in February 2010, and the archive is not all-encompassing, so any further reports from the ambassador remain unknown.
Note: Article edited September 28, 2012 to insert hyperlinks to the Stratfor emails at wikileaks.org instead of document ID references. The full release may be viewed here.